2017-04-12 21:40:14 UTC
A criticism of post-apocalyptic fiction from
"I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. Most of it uses any of
several recurring memes, all of which make for a good (and
easy-to-write) story, but none of which are particularly realistic.
Here, in no particular order, are several of those memes:
There is no such thing as a zombie. Enough said. Serious preppers may
tell you they’re preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse, but they aren’t
serious. That’s just shorthand for preparing for any eventuality.
The protagonist of these stories is often stranded hundreds or even
thousands of miles from home and loved ones, and proceeds to walk home.
He or they have many violent encounters, but always come through pretty
much unscathed. Using just what they have in their (usually outrageously
heavy) backpacks, they make it home after weeks or even months of
walking, conveniently finding everything they need to make the trip.
Some of these treks are more realistic than others, notably Franklin
Horton’s Borrowed World series and Angery American’s Home series, but
ultimately all of them are fantasies. The reality is that if the S
really HTF and you find yourself more than two or three days’ walk away
from home, you’re not going to make it unless you start that trek before
the majority of people realize what’s happened.
For example, if I were writing such a scenario and had Barbara stranded
down in Winston-Salem, 60 miles or so from home, I’m not going to have
her walk home. She’s in excellent shape for a woman her age, but even so
it’s just not practical. Instead, I’d have her walk some and hitch rides
when possible. Her trip back home won’t take weeks, let alone months.
Instead, she’ll leave the moment the Event occurs and arrive back home
in a day, if not later the same day. Better yet, she’d just drive home,
making the normal 1.5 hour trip in, oh, 1.5 hours.
Destruction of Electronics
The two best-known books based on this meme are David Crawford’s Lights
Out and William R. Forstchen’s One Second After. Both are better-written
than average for this genre. The problem is, their scenario is very
unlikely. There are two mechanisms for such an event:
o a Carrington-class solar storm (coronal mass ejection), which would
damage long transmission lines, transformers, and any AC equipment that
was connected, but not unconnected electronics, such as automobiles,
cell phones, pacemakers, etc. etc. The aftermath would be hideously bad,
but would not destroy all electronics, let alone electric motors and so
on. Note that a CME is predictable, and that the world would have
probably several days’ warning to take measures to minimize damage.
o a high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (HEMP or just EMP) event
would have extremely severe consequences, but the extent and level of
severity are unknowable, simply because it’s never happened. There are
simply so many variables that making even a rough prediction is
impossible. It’s safe to bet that a major EMP event would do incredible
damage to our electric power grid and any electric/electronic devices
connected to it, as well as many unconnected devices such as cell phones
and other portable electronics. As to vehicles, the common meme is that
all of them would be damaged beyond usability with the exception of
diesels and elderly gasoline vehicles, those made in 1980 or before,
which use carburetors and distributors rather than fuel-injection. In
reality, modern diesels would actually be as much (or as little)
affected as modern gasoline engines. My guess is that a significant
percentage of EFI gasoline engines would be unaffected, other than
perhaps requiring the battery to be disconnected and then reconnected to
cause the vehicle computer(s) to reboot. Those vehicle computers are
generally very well protected, in what amounts to Faraday cages.
Rawles’ Golden Hordes
In his books, Rawles was one of the first authors other than Pournelle
and Niven to predict ravening hordes of refugees flowing out of the
cities and into rural areas, where they’d overwhelm the locals. That’s
possible, of course, depending on the type of disaster that occurs. In a
financial collapse or similar widespread disaster, we’d probably see the
converse: people migrating from rural areas to the large cities, because
that’s where government disaster relief efforts would be concentrated.
Rural areas would be the last to get any such relief efforts, if indeed
they received any help at all.
Even in a worst-case scenario, such as terrorists setting off dirty
bombs in large cities, mass migrations to rural areas are unlikely. Most
ordinary people in the cities will wait too long before deciding to
evacuate, by which time it will be impossible to do so. Look what less
than an inch of snow did to Atlanta in 2014. Interstates literally
turned into parking lots, even though the event had been forecast well
in advance. A dirty bomb attack or similar event that occurred with no
notice would clog highways even faster. Accidents, disabled vehicles,
and all of the other things that happen in such circumstances would make
roads impassable, starting with the interstates and other main highways,
but quickly clogging even 2-lane roads.
What Rawles and others ignore is what I call the tenth-value distance.
How many miles of road is sufficient to cut the number of people down to
10% of the original number? That TVD obviously varies with the specifics
for an area. For the Triad and Charlotte populations trying to evacuate
towards Sparta, I estimated the TVD at 10 miles. In other words, if
100,000 people set out from the Triad heading towards Sparta, after 10
miles that’d be down to 10,000, after 20 miles down to 1,000, and so on.
After the 60 miles to Sparta, that original number of people would be
down to (0.1)e6, or one one-millionth of the original number. Call it
one tenth of a person would reach Sparta.
That’s the good news, at least for Sparta residents if not Triad
residents. The bad news is that the TVD applies to average people. The
TVD for really bad people–one percenter motorcycle gangs, inner-city
gangs, and so on–is much higher. Yeah, we’d see groups of them up here,
but there are plenty of Good Old Boys here, most of whom grew up hunting
and shooting. Gang members who decide to come up here to rob, rape, and
pillage would find themselves dead pretty quickly.
The concept of bugging out is hugely popular in PA fiction, but the
reality is that it almost never makes sense to bug out except in a
disaster that’s very localized. If a train wreck dumps toxic chemicals
near your home or a huge wildfire is approaching, yes it makes sense to
bug out, but the idea of a very localized disaster with everywhere
outside the immediate area unaffected is, by definition, not an
apocalyptic scenario. In a widespread catastrophe, leaving your home and
going out on the road is simply stupid. At home, you have all of your
supplies and you are surrounded by people you’ve known for years.
Hunkering down preserves those advantages; bugging out gives up all of
them in exchange for the uncertainties of the road. Even if you have a
well-stocked bugout location, getting there is by no means certain. And
even if you do get there, there’s a good chance you’ll find it looted
and perhaps occupied by squatters. Hunkering down is far safer, even if
you’re in a suburb of a larger city. Making a run for it is not far from
PA authors love to cast FEMA/DHS as evil jackbooted thugs. The reality
is that they’re mostly ordinary people. In a catastrophe, they’ll being
doing their best to do their jobs. Sure there’ll be some petty
bureaucrats drunken with power who make things for refugees worse than
they might have been, and yes the realities of having to care for
thousands or tens of thousands of people will require them to enforce
strict rules, but the idea that FEMA/DHS will end up running
concentration camps, let alone death camps, is ridiculous. They won’t be
trying to make people miserable, let alone enslave them.
Not that things wouldn’t be miserable despite their best efforts. Even
if the country mobilized every resource available, the state and federal
governments simply don’t have sufficient resources to deal with even a
regional disaster, let alone one that’s nationwide. There simply isn’t
enough spare food sitting around to feed everyone, or pure water, or
spare electrical generation capacity, or drugs, or anything else.
Everything would be in extremely short supply, and conditions in such
refugee camps would soon become unspeakably bad. But don’t blame that on
FEMA/DHS. Just resolve to do what it takes to take care of yourself and
your family and friends, because if there is a large scale catastrophe
the last place you want to be is anywhere near a refugee camp.
Breakdown of Law
Another common meme is WROL (without rule of law). The idea that the
government becomes utterly incapable of enforcing even fundamental laws
like those against rape, robbery, and murder. Since they can’t or won’t
enforce such fundamental laws, plucky preppers have to do it themselves.
These preppers have no fear of ever facing charges for shooting people
out of hand and so on, because the government isn’t there any more.
Don’t count on it. State and local law enforcement may be overwhelmed
initially, and in fact probably would be. But they’ll still be there,
and when things begin to settle down they’re likely to show up at your
door and ask you some hard questions about that pile of bodies
surrounding your house. The metric will be “were these the actions of a
reasonable man?” Law enforcement, particularly in rural areas and small
towns, will tend to sympathize with ordinary people who were forced to
use lethal force to defend themselves, but that’s about as far as it
PA novelists often fantasize about a family living in their retreat, a
self-sufficient homestead miles from their nearest neighbors. In
reality, such a site would be about as dangerous as living in a central
city. Maybe more so. Isolating yourself geographically from bad events
makes sense superficially, but only for as long as it takes you to
consider the implications. Being miles from your nearest neighbor
doesn’t mean the bad guys won’t find you. It just means the nearest help
is miles away. The bad guys, if they have the common sense of a turnip,
will ambush you, snipe you, and otherwise pick at you piecemeal until
they’ve eliminated your ability to defend yourself, which was pretty
limited to begin with. You’re on your own. No one is coming to help you.
You and your family will die alone, and the bad guys will eat everything
you have stored away and then move to the next isolated cabin and do it
It’s far better to put yourself in a small-town/rural setting where you
have friends and neighbors. Not just for a common defense, but to share
skills, knowledge, and other resources. I know a lot about a lot, but I
don’t know everything about everything, and some or many of the things I
know nothing about may turn out to be critical. That’s why Barbara and I
chose to move where we did. There are a lot of people around here who
have useful/critical skills, and by becoming part of the community we
are preparing to share our own skills in the expectation that others
will do the same.
So I’m preparing for none of those scenarios because none of them are
very likely. Which brings me to the final common meme in PA novels, but
this one actually does make sense.
What Rawles calls “doubling up” essentially means sharing not just your
skills but your living space with others who have complementary skills
and supplies. In a critical situation, when you’re surrounded by
potential threats, you need trusted people above all. You and your wife
aren’t enough. Even if you invite your extended family to stay with you
during an emergency, that’s probably not enough people. There’ll be
loads of work to do and not enough people to do it all. Finding
additional trustworthy people to be part of your group should be your